The Burning (1981)

11 Oct
Even though it’s a decidedly mediocre flick, the garden shears gimmick is awesome.

The popularity of slasher flicks in the early ’80s led to a proliferation of gimmicks as each movie in the sub-genre fought to stand out. What “The Burning” was known for at its release was its garden-shear killings and graphic violence. What it’s best known for now is its yearbook-esque performances from Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens … and its infamous raft death sequence. Nice to know some things never change.

Summer camp janitor Cropsy is loathed by the campers at Camp Blackfoot, and a group of them plot a mean-spirited but innocent enough revenge that goes horribly wrong. The janitor is accidently set afire, and he is left permanently — and monstruously — disfigured, hence “The Burning.” In the intervening years, Camp Blackfoot has closed, but Camp Stonewater has opened nearby. On the first night of the annual overnight canoe trip, head counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) tells the macabre story of Cropsy, identifying the tale as a horrific accident but omitting the fact that he was involved. Neither he nor any of the other unfortunate campers have any way of knowing Cropsy is close enough to hear every word … and demented enough to seek revenge.

There’s very little to set “The Burning” apart from every other teen slasher flick of this time period. The standout plot device of the killer’s identity being known from the start is employed, but to little effect. His actions are presented via hand-held camerawork and are blurred at the edges (quite possibly the budget-friendly vaseline trick), presumably to mimick the unfortunate baddie’s limited vision.

The whole set-up is a little flawed. Accident or no, shouldn’t those campers involved have been punished in some way for a prank which lit a man on fire and left him permanently and painfully disfigured? Ooh, and here’s a biggie: If, as it is mentioned, Cropsy has been meeting with psychologists and undergoing therapy, and they know he has revenge fantasies and a problem forgiving the kids involved and in fact any teenager, why isn’t he monitored a little after being released from the hospital? It’s asking a lot for a slasher flick to have perfect logic, but an attempt at making sense would be nice.

I get that I’m supposed to identify with the teenage counselors/campers in this film, but they’re so bland/irritating/obviously not teenagers that it’s hard to do so. Matthews’ Todd and his female counterpart Michelle (Leah Ayres) are so goody-goody and straight-laced that it’s impossible to buy them as actual people, so the idea of them being in danger elicits little response. Those two characters contrast directly with Glazer (Larry Joshua) and Sally (Carrick Glenn), who spend most of the movie undressed, in the process of talking about being undressed, or undressed and in action. I never could figure out whether they were campers or counselors, but either way someone should’ve been paying more attention. Their deaths are mandated from the start. Somewhere in between these two extremes are Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) and Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), who do get naked but not busy and therefore feel unjustly murdered.

Fisher Stevens in his penultimate (and most righteous) scene from "The Burning."

The best characters in the movie are Woodstock, played by a nigh-unrecognizable-as-such Fisher Stevens, and the wise-cracking Dave, who is supposed to be a camper but is portrayed by the then-22-year-old-but-already-noticeably-Costanza-esque Jason Alexander. These are the only two people in the entire film who show a spark of talent, and they’re completely under-utilized. Holly Hunter, who is an Oscar winner, was also in this movie; she had only one line.

Really, all I’m left with in “The Burning” is the completely awesome over-the-top gore-fest that is the infamous raft sequence. Five of the campers have left the overnight campsite on a makeshift raft after it is discovered all the canoes are missing. Nevermind how these kids are able to construct a sea-worthy raft in a matter of hours from a pile of sticks and bubble gum; they get it built, and the rescue party casts off. After a good bit of semi-arduous paddling and grade-A teenage jive-talkin’, they come across one of their abandoned canoes. Alas, that awful Cropsy is inside, and he manages to slice and dice his way through the teens in a matter of minutes and in a variety of blood-soaked and highly entertaining ways. This scene alone caused “The Burning” a lot of ratings headaches back in the day. It’s still sort of shockingly violent given its era, but these days it plays more like campy humor than blood-curdling horror.

Slasher fans consider “The Burning” a classic, and it’s easy to see why: It takes all the trademarks of the genre (teenage sex, a disfigured killer, a lack of adult supervision) and amps it up with buckets and buckets of blood. For everyone else, the declining action drags considerably, the story is kind of stupid, and the acting is truly awful. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but it certainly doesn’t transcend its target audience. Two stars out of four.

The Burning“: Rated R. Starring Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisengerg, Carrick Glenn, Carolyn Houlian, Fisher Stevens, Lou David, Shelley Bruce, Sarah Chodoff, Bonnie Deroski, Holly Hunter and Kevi Kendall. Directed by Tony Maylam. Story by Harvey Weinstein (yes, that Harvey Weinstein), Tony Maylam and Brad Grey. Screenplay by Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein (again, yes). Cinematography by Harvey Harrison. Original music by Rick Wakeman. Special makeup effects by Tom Savini.

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